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Who Solved the Problem? Joint Inventors, That’s Who

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to correct inventorship in a post-issuance inventorship dispute, finding that the alleged joint inventors’ contributions were significant even though they were mostly unclaimed. Tube-Mac Indus., Inc. v. Campbell, Case No. 22-2170 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 15, 2024) (Lourie, Hughes, Stark, JJ.) (nonprecedential).

Steve Campbell was the original sole inventor named on a utility patent application directed to a container for transporting gaseous fluids. Before Campbell filed the patent application, Campbell’s prototypes had a “major problem” with the container’s liner. Campbell enlisted the help of Tube-Mac Industries’ Gary Mackay and Dan Hewson to solve the problem. Campbell, Mackay and Hewson exchanged plans regarding the problem over the course of several months. Campbell’s patent issued, naming himself as the sole inventor. Mackay, Hewson and Tube-Mac filed suit seeking to be named as co-inventors. The district court agreed and ordered correction of the patent under 35 U.S.C. § 256. Campbell appealed.

A court may order a correction of inventorship when it determines that an inventor has been erroneously omitted from a patent. In any inventorship challenge, the inventors listed in an issued patent are presumed to be the correct inventor(s). Thus, a party challenging inventorship must prove incorrect inventorship by clear and convincing evidence. A joint inventor must contribute significantly to the invention’s conception or reduction to practice when that contribution is measured against the scope of the full invention.

The Federal Circuit found that prior to the involvement of Mackay and Hewson, Campbell did not have a viable invention that could be reduced to practice without extensive experimentation. The Court also found that Mackay’s and Hewson’s contributions solved the problem that precluded the prototype from being successful, even though their contributions were “mostly unclaimed.” The Court noted, however, that their contributions were included in the application’s figures, specifications and dependent claims. Accordingly, the Court found that Mackay and Hewson contributed significantly to the conception of the invention and should be included as co-inventors.

The Federal Circuit also dismissed Campbell’s arguments that the district court did not properly construe the claims to determine their scope and erred by misidentifying the subject matter of the claims.

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Co-Authorship ≠ Co-Inventorship but Can Be Supportive of Inventive Contribution

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision because it failed to resolve fundamental testimonial conflict relating to inventive contribution and complete the Duncan Parking analysis. Google LLC v. IPA Technologies Inc., Case Nos. 21-1179; -1180; -1185 (Fed. Cir. May 19, 2022) (Dyk, Schall, Taranto, JJ.)

Under Duncan Parking, analyzing whether a reference patent is “by another” requires the following three steps:

  1. Determining what portions were relied on as prior art to anticipate the claim limitations at issue
  2. Evaluating the degree to which those portions were conceived by another
  3. Deciding whether that other person’s contribution is significant enough to render them a joint inventor of the applied portions of the reference patent.

SRI International filed two patent applications in 1999 related to the software-based Open Agent Architecture (OAA) and listed Martin and Cheyer as the inventors. In March 1998, an academic paper describing the OAA project was published and named these inventors and Moran as co-authors (Martin reference). During prosecution, the examiner identified the Martin reference as prior art and rejected the claims. SRI asserted that the Martin reference was not prior art because it was made by the same inventive entity as the patents. The patents were granted and assigned to IPA.

Google petitioned the Board for inter partes review of the patent claims. Google argued obviousness in view of the Martin reference and asserted that since the authors of the Martin reference (Martin, Cheyer, Moran) were not the same as the named inventive entity (Martin, Cheyer), the Martin reference was prior art “by others.” The Board instituted review but decided that Google did not meet its burden to provide sufficient support in establishing the correct inventive entity of the claimed subject matter and concluded that Moran’s testimony was insufficiently corroborated. Google appealed.

First, the Federal Circuit discussed the differences between burdens of persuasion and production and responded to Google’s argument that the Board improperly imposed a burden of proof. The Court found no error in the Board requiring Google to establish that the Martin reference was prior art “by another” by showing that Moran made a significant-enough contribution to qualify as a joint inventor on the relevant portions of the Martin reference.

Second, the Federal Circuit explained that the issue in this case was not the lack of corroboration for Moran’s testimony but rather whether his testimony should be credited over Cheyer and Martin’s conflicting testimony. The Court explained that to address joint inventorship under Duncan Parking, Moran “must have made an inventive contribution to the portions of the reference relied on and relevant to establishing obviousness.” Moran’s testimony could support co-inventorship of portions in the Martin reference relied on by Google and relevant to the challenged claims.

The Federal Circuit explained that although most corroboration cases involve issued patents, corroboration is also required for testimony that an individual is an inventor of a potentially invalidating, non-patent prior art reference. The record contained “more [...]

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